The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is one of the two most endangered apes in the world (with the Cross River Gorilla, Gorilla gorilla diehli). There are only approximately 350 mountain gorillas alive today, and all of them are found in the wild. They only exist in two small, protected afromontane forest patches in northwest Rwanda, southwest Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The beautiful emerald-green Virunga Volcanoes straddling the Rwanda-Uganda border are the stronghold of the celebrated mountain gorilla.
This park contains the ‘gorillas in the mist’ that Dian Fossey lost her life for while trying to protect. Only about 355 mountain gorillas remain alive on the damp forested slopes of these volcanic mountains (not all of which are dormant), and eco-tourism is one way to assist in their survival.
The slippery slopes of the Virunga Mountains lie in the north east of Rwanda. The mountain range with peaks up to 14,648 feet (4,507metres), spills over into the neighboring countries of DRC (Congo – formally Zaire), and Uganda – where mountain gorillas may also be visited.
The park contains several vegetation zones from lowland forest to Afro alpine and tall primary rain forest whose low branches are covered in lichen and occasional parasitic orchids.
Having a close encounter with mountain gorillas is a heart-warming experience that you will never forget, neither is trudging through the damp loamy undergrowth, often heavy with mist.
None of the hardships enter your head once you make eye contact with your first gorilla and the sensation of kinship is almost overwhelming. There is more meaning and understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal you know.
There are strict protocols in place and each of the habituated gorilla groups receives a maximum of eight people in one visit a day. Meeting these distant cousins of ours is a real privilege.
All extant apes live in the tropics of the Old World: orangutans and the various gibbon species in Asia, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas in Africa. There, the gorillas live in rain forests from the lowland up to the mountains.
Although chimpanzees and bonobos are the closest relatives of humans, gorillas resemble us more in some respects. For instance, the gorillas’ hands and feet resemble the human ones more than those of other apes. Gorillas spend more time on the ground than other apes, therefore their feet are more suited to walking. This is especially true for the mountain gorillas.
Gorillas – Distribution and Subspecies
Today, the distribution areas of the western and the eastern gorillas are separated by almost 900 km. The reason for this is probably that a formerly uniform area was split at some point, most likely during the ice ages. At that time, climatic changes caused the rain forest to shrink into a few refuge areas. The Savannah, which spread between these refuge areas, was not an appropriate habitat for gorillas. Later, when the rain forest spread again over the whole of the African tropics, gorillas could only advance to the Ubangi and Congo Rivers.As western and eastern gorillas have been separated for such a long time, they have followed separate development paths. Today, they differ distinctly both in their external characteristics and in their genetic material. More than 100,000 gorillas are still living in the western area, according to estimates, and in the eastern region there may be only about 3,000 individuals left. The eastern gorillas are extremely endangered, which is why the “Mountain Gorilla & the Rain Forest Direct Help” supports the conservation of these populations in particular.
Ruhengeri, which can easily be reached by public transport from the Rwandan capital of Kigali or the northwestern city of Gisenyi, is the normal base for a visit to the gorillas. There is no public transport from Ruhengeri to the headquarters of Volcanoes National Park Rwanda, where the gorillas are located, so visitors who aren’t on a tour should plan to hire a car with four-wheel drive (and driver).
The easiest and safest way to arrange one or more gorilla trekkings is of course to make an arrangement with a reliable tour operator. The tour operators provide you with a driver/guide, book your accommodation near the starting point of the park and make sure you are there is time. Travelers should check for information on suggested inoculations and health precautions.
WHERE TO STAY:
There are several good hotels/lodges close to the park entrance with different rates (from about $70, till ………. at beautiful places between the vulcanoes. Some attractive ones are Mountain Gorilla View, Mountain Gorillas nest, an attractive resort with individual huts around a central garden of fountains and flowering trees — and the Kinigi Guesthouse. The latter is run by ASOFERWA, a charity established to help women and children struggling to recover from the traumas of the genocide; all profits go toward the group’s work. The hotel has a Swiss-chalet feel, comfortable public areas and good food.
From these hotels you may be able to hitch a ride to the park, but you’d still have to get to the gorilla starting point and back to your room later.
SEEING THE GORILLAS:
A gorilla permit costs $500 a person, which covers all gorilla trek expenses, plus a park entrance fee of $35.
Additional attractions in the park include viewing the endangered golden monkeys that lurk in bamboo thickets near nature trails ($75 permit required); and climbing the volcanoes, plus nature walks, trekking and birding.
Permits should be purchased far in advance.
Eight permits per day are issued for each group of gorillas, so the maximum number of permits can range from eight to 56, depending on how many families are visible on a given day.
Check with your tour operator to confirm your permit. Payment must be in bills dated 2000 or later. There are no ATMs, and neither credit cards nor traveler’s checks are accepted throughout most of Rwanda.
Consider a package tour. A custom-made tour, including a car and driver, from Kigali with a driver that speaks excellent English; the cost will be about $300 per day.
WHAT TO BRING:
During your foray into the park, wear sturdy shoes, layers (two pair of pants or long underwear, as well as two shirts) and garden gloves to protect from the nettles. Bring water, lunch and, of course, your camera. Film or memory cards are not available at the park office, so pack extra.